1:30 Cheltenham – The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
Irish runners on the whole have fared better than their British rivals, having landed fourteen of the last twenty-four renewals. Willie Mullins won four of the last seven with Champagne Fever, Vautour, Douvan and Klassical Dream and his Asterion Forlonge will lead the Irish challenge once again this year. He also saddles Elixir d'Ainay and Berkshire Royal , while other Irish raiders this year include Abacadabras for Gordon Elliott and Henry De Bromhead’s Captain Guinness.
A key factor to consider is that the cream normally rises to the top here with five of the past six renewals being won by a horse rated 150 or higher. Last year Klassical Dream and stablemate Aramon topped the ratings with a mark of 154, and Vautour, Douvan and Altior were all top-rated, each on a mark of 155 going into the Supreme. Therefore, novices with a rating of 154 higher or higher are four-from-seven in the last 6 years, with Asterion Forlonge rated 155 going into the 2020 renewal and Fiddlerontheroof the highest rated British contender (154).
In tandem with the previous point, the past eight winners have all previously won a Grade novice hurdle, with the seven of the past eighteen having won at the highest level earlier in the season. This just accentuates the theory that quality reigns supreme (pun intended) here. A particularly strong trend from a small amount of runners in recent times is that four of the past seven winners had won a Grade 1 novice hurdle on their previous start (from just seven qualifiers). There are three horses who arrive at Cheltenham this year on the back of a top-level success – Asterion Forlonge, Abacadabras, and Fiddlerontheroof. The first-name’s victory could prove to be informative as Asterion Forlonge won the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown last month in impressive style, a race which three of the past seven Supreme winners had also took en route to Festival glory.
In truth, the majority of those lining up in the Festival novice events will have won last time out but it still helps to separate the wheat from the chaff. Twenty of the last twenty-three winners had won on their previous start, which doesn’t bode well for the likes of Captain Guinness and Edwardstone.
With the stiff Cheltenham finish separating the men from the boys, experienced hurdlers have proven to be the way to go last eleven winners having run in at least four hurdle races prior to lining up here. Nicky Henderson’s well-fancied pair of Shiskin and Chantry House fall foul of this particular trend, although interestingly so does Asterion Forlonge.
The form of races at Leopardstown in the Dublin Racing Festival is often very strong and it’s no surprise to see Asterion Forlonge right at the top of the trends table. He was impressive when staying on strongly for a nine and a half length success in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle, a race which has proven to be good stepping stone to Cheltenham in recent years. He will be bidding to make it back-to-back wins in the Supreme for Willie Mullins, and a seventh overall of the outstanding Irish trainer. The main challenge to Mullins could come from Ireland as Gordon Elliott’s Abacadabras also arrives at Cheltenham on the back of a win at the highest level. He won by eight lengths at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival when last seen, but that was his third win from four starts over hurdles so has an experience advantage over Asterion Forlonge. The pick of the British-trained horses could be Fiddlerontheroof who has progressed to his win his last two hurdle races for Colin Tizzard, including the Grade 1 Tolworth at the beginning of the year. He is one of only two horses this year (alongside Asterion Forlonge) to be rated 154 or higher after his Sandown success.
2:10 Cheltenham – The Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Steeple Chase (Grade 1)
Consistency is key when trying to find the winner of the Arkle and last time out winners have a great record here. Notebook, Brewin’upastorm, Global Citizen, Rouge Vif, Esprit Du Large, Maire Banrigh, Put The Kettle On and Our Merlin have all been victorious on their previous start. Of these, Notebook, Global Citizen, Rouge Vif, Esprit Du Large and Put The Kettle On all managed to win a Grade 1 or 2 on their previous start which is another important trend.
Another impressive stat was 15 of the last 21 were unbeaten over fences when they lined up in the Arkle. Only Notebook, Brewin’upastorm and Maire Banrigh boast this impressive stat. Our Merlin is also unbeaten but has only had the one start over fences in a much lower grade. Having significant experience is a key factor; Fakir D’oudaries, Global Citizen and Our Merlin all don’t fit this trend. When you consider 14 of the last 18 winners had competed between 3 and 4 times over fences, it would be a worry for those three. Furthermore, five-year-olds tend to perform poorly in this race. In the last 9 renewals only one five-year-old has gone onto win. This stat would be a negative for Fakir D’oudaries.
Being top-rated and having proven class is key trend. This year that goes to Notebook who is rated 158. Seven of the last 12 winners have been the highest rated when winning, however Hardline failed to oblige last year when he was the highest rated. Willie Mullins continued his flying form in this race when he won it with Duc De Genievres. This made it 4 winners in the last 5 renewals. He saddles Cash Back who has to enter calculations when trying to work out this race.
Esprit Du Large
Notebook is not only top of the market but is top of the trends as well. It is easy to see why he is so well fancied for this renewal and since switching to fences has looked a completely different proposition. Beating all other challengers, his most impressive effort was his victory over Cash Back in his last start. Footpad, Douvan and Un de Sceaux have all won this race for Willie Mullins which could suggest that whatever beats his fancied runner should be a very good prospect.
Rouge Vif is a more of surprising one at the top of the trends as he is further down the market. He recently had a wind op and posted a very respectable effort behind Global Citizen. He then confirmed this form when winning a Grade 2 at Warwick in eye-catching style. He was a decent proposition over hurdles and if he continues his progress over fences he looks to be a good play a big price. One concern would be his poor showing at Cheltenham on his last start, however if you forgive him for that he should go close.
A more testing track seems to favour Esprit Du Large. His best efforts have all come on more undulating tracks and on this evidence Cheltenham should suit. He will stay further than the trip which is often key at Cheltenham and is proven over 2m 3f. His wins this season have not been by the widest margins however he was quite resilient on his last start where he took a Grade One beating 153 rated Nube Negra. One slight concern could be the wetter conditions, which look forecast for Tuesday. He has put up his better efforts this season on Good to Soft however come Tuesday it may well be bordering on the heavier side.
2:50 Cheltenham – The Ultima Handicap Steeple Chase (Grade 3)
Although favourites haven’t got a great record in the race, (only two winning jollies in the last ten years) the betting is usually a good guide, as only four winners this century have gone off at odds bigger than 11/1. Vinndication (favourite at the time of writing), Discorama, Who Dares Wins, Kildisart, The Conditional and Mister Malarky occupy those positions at the time of writing.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, those with Festival experience have outperformed those without, as only one of the last ten winners of the race was making their Festival debut. Those arriving at Prestbury Park in March for the first time include Cepage, Townshend, Soupy Soups and Vivas.
Form at Cheltenham is also valuable and the trials day at the course in late-January has been an important place to look in recent times. The last five winners of the Ultima have featured at Cheltenham in January and Cepage arrives here this year having won the big Grade 3 handicap at that meeting.
Although Festival experience is key, seasoned campaigners have certainly not been the band to follow here. Novices and those lightly-raced over fences have dominated in recent times, which is a positive for supporters of Who Dares Wins, The Conditional and Elwood.
Alan King has saddled the winner of this race twice in the past, a plus for those backing Who Dares Wins, but Nicky Henderson’s good record in this race was supplemented with the victory of Beware The Bear last year. Henderson has also seen six more horses finish second (4) or third (2) since 2005. Irish Hussar twice filled the third spot, while Juveigneur finished runner-up in back-to-back renewals, again highlighting the earlier point about returning horses doing well.
Who Dares Wins
In a typically competitive renewal of the Ultima, Who Dares Wins is a big victor on the trends. A lightly-raced novice, he has smart form over fences in his only three runs to date, notably when winning a Grade 2 at Kempton last time out. He has a great chance of improving Alan King’s record in the race, so despite concerns about his battle hardened-ness he fits a host of the key trends.
Course form is vital at the Festival, and one horse who has that in droves is Discorama. Second in the Martin Pipe a few years back, he was a gallant second behind Le Breuil in the National Hunt Chase last year and he’s been well found in the market in recent weeks. Bryan Cooper knows a thing or two about riding a winner round here and the wind surgery should have him spot on again.
Burbank is another who’s ran well at this meeting before, finishing seventh in the 2018 Coral Cup when he had big traffic problems. A lightly-raced novice, he was never sighted in the Sky Bet Chase but has been freshened up since then and represents the powerful Seven Barrows team. Activial was given a bold ride by Tom Scudamore in this race last year and looked to hold a big chance turning for home before fading into sixth. He’s now a whopping 6lb lower (raced off 151 last year) and more patient tactics could see him bang there in the finish.
3:30 Cheltenham – Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1)
As the pinnacle of the 2m hurdling calendar, it comes as little surprise that history suggests that it is best to focus on those in their prime. Horses at both ends of the age spectrum don’t have the best of records, with five-year-olds holding a poor record overall since 1985, despite Espoir D’Allen’s victory last year, and horses aged 10 or older hold a similarly poor record. That suggests that the bracket to focus on are those aged between 6 and 9. There are three five-year-olds in the line-up this year, Coeur Sublime, Fusil Raffles and Pentland Hills, while the elder brigade include the likes of ten-year-old Supasundae, with nine-year-olds Petit Mouchoir and Ballyandy also lining up.
In terms of trainers, there is no doubt that the Irish have dominated in recent years, having been responsible for 13 of the last 20 winners. Hurricane Fly, Jezki, Faugheen and Annie Power have all landed the spoils for the Emerald Isle in recent times and their dominance was underlined in 2015 when the first four home were all trained in Ireland. Willie Mullins fields two this year with supplementary entry Cilaos Emery joining Sharjah, Henry De Bromhead saddles Petit Mouchoir, Gordon Elliott brings over Coeur Sublime with Jessica Harrington, Joseph O’Brien and last year’s winning trainer Gavin Cromwell saddling Supasundae, Darasso, Darver Star respectively.
Although home-based animals have tended to struggle in the main, Nicky Henderson-trained runners have been the exception. Horses campaigning from Seven Barrows hold a strong record in the Champion Hurdle and Epatante will be well-fancied to silence the critics and take the leap up to Champion Hurdle class. He will be joined by Henderson’s Call Me Lord, Fusil Raffles and Triumph Hurdle winner Pentland Hills.
Festival form has proven a key guide when it comes to the Champion Hurdle with horses that have run at the Festival before responsible for the majority of the names on the roll of honour. This bodes well for last year’s third Silver Streak and last year’s Triumph winner Pentland Hills, while Epatante sneakily grabs this trend too despite finishing a disappointing ninth as favourite for last year’s Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.
In a wide open year it’s no surprise to see the Christmas Hurdle winner Epatante top the trends for the race this year. An unbeaten and improving mare, she has Grade 1 experience and time on her hands, major factors you need to find the Champion Hurdle winner. If she goes and bolts in then her price could look massive in hindsight, and she is worthy of her place at the head of the market.
Cilaos Emery and Pentland Hills follow her in. Connections of the former shelled out a massive £22,500 to supplement him for this race and in an open year then why not, an understandable decision to curtail his chasing career in favour of coming here. A placed effort would be no surprise, with similar comments applying to Nicky Henderson’s Triumph Hurdle winner. He has to overcome the difficult fact that he’s five, and in general we’ve seen a moving trend to rate top juveniles in an exaggerated manner. He has something to prove on his form the last twice.
4:10 Cheltenham – Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle (Registered As The David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle) (Grade 1)
Willie Mullins has made this race his own in recent years as he’s won nine of the past eleven renewals and he runs Benie Des Dieux, Stormy Ireland and Elfile in the 2020 renewal.
A strong related trend is that ten of the last twelve winners were trained in Ireland, largely down to Mullins’ dominance. Half of the line-up hail from the emerald isle this year, with Benie Des Dieux and the Henry De Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle looking to be the standout contenders in the line-up. Another country based trend is that French-bred (FR) mares have won nine renewals from just 20 per cent of the runners and the French-bred horses this time around include Benie des Dieux, Stormy Ireland and Elfile.
You may not need to look that hard for a winner here as ten of the last eleven winners hailed from the front three in the betting. Benie Des Dieux was sent off as the odds-on favourite last year and looked set for victory before unfortunately falling at the final hurdle. She is a strong fancy to make amends in 2020 and gain her second victory in the race after her 2018 win, with the betting suggesting that it should be fought out between her and Honeysuckle. The next closest in the market as it stands are Dan Skelton’s 2019 winner Roksana and Stormy Ireland. The reason for their strength in the market is largely down to their previous form and it is worth noting that nine of the winners had already been successful in either Grade 1 or 2 company, which leaves dual Grade 3 winner Stormy Ireland with something to find up against those ahead of her in the market.
Another strong stat is that the last eleven winners had won over a minimum of 2m4f, which applies to all of the field except the Fergal O’Brien-trained Cap Soleil. A major negative is that no ex-Flat horse has won this race, with the only two in this year’s line-up being Benie Des Dieux and Stormy Ireland. Furthermore British-bred mares are 0/78 (from 40 per cent representation) so Honeysuckle and Lady Buttons which have to try and break that strong trend.
Benie des Dieux
Benie des Dieux won the Mares’ Hurdle in 2018 and was on course for another victory in the Grade 1 last year before falling at the last. She is odds-on to regain her title in 2020 and make it a remarkable tenth win in the race for trainer Willie Mullins. The nine-year-old arrives at Cheltenham having won her three races since last year’s Festival, all in impressive style. She has only been seen once on the track so far this season, but that was a twenty-one length success in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in January. She put up a dominant performance against the boys that day and a reproduction of that effort at Cheltenham could make her difficult to beat. However, she will have to overcome the stat that no ex-Flat horse has yet gone on to win the Mares’ Hurdle.
The race has brought about one of the most-anticipated clashes of this year’s Festival with Henry De Bromhead’s Honeysuckle putting her unbeaten record of seven wins from seven races over hurdles on the line. She landed the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival last time out, but British-bred mares have a poor record in the race.
Therefore, the others completing the shortlist are last year’s one-two Roksana and Stormy Ireland. The pair may have been fortunate winner to finish where they did under the circumstances in 2019, but their proven form at Cheltenham could see them go well again in the Grade 1 contest.
4:50 Cheltenham – Northern Trust Novices’ Handicap Steeple Chase (Listed Race)
Last year’s winner could not have been any more emphatic in what is usually an extremely competitive handicap. A Plus Tard’s 16 length victory made a mockery of his handicap mark and he is now favourite in this year’s Ryanair. This year’s field is even more competitive with 139 being the cut off point for entrants. This means there are only 7lbs between top and bottom weight, and often there is a graded horse lurking in this race.
An interesting trend is the success of the horses at those of the top of the market. Imperial Aura tops the market at a general 9/2 shot and if judged on recent trends he looks to have a great chance. Eight out of the last nine winners have been 12/1 or shorter and in the last three years the winner has been single figures in the betting. He fits most of the main trends, including contesting the Timeform Novices’ Handicap on Trials day - finishing a close second to Simply The Betts. There are not many in this field who have contested this race, Champagne Court and Jarveys Plate the only other two to have done so. Champagne Court also fits another important trend of this being his trainers first Cheltenham festival winner if he were to bolt up the hill.
Two of the market leaders have failed to have a run in 2020, which could be a concern. Both Galvin and Espoir Du Guye have not been seen at a course since 2019. Espoir Du Guye is clearly a progressive type and trends suggest that those horses who come into this race off the back off a win do perform well. Another key trend he fails to meet; is to run in a bumper. In the last 5 renewals, only one has failed to run in a bumper, this being last year’s winner A Plus Tard. Champagne Mystery, Torpillo, Espoir Du Guye and Highest Sun have also, all failed to run in a bumper.
Having a fair amount of experience seems come into play when trying to uncover the winner. There is little margin for error in such a big field and having either three or four runs before the race is an important trend. Trainwreck has exceeded the ideal number of races but it still a maiden after seven attempts over the larger obstacles. Although, this may seem to be a disadvantage, a maiden over the fences has placed at worst in nine the last 10 years. This could work in his favour but his lack of success may prove to be his undoing at the finish line. The heavy weights at the top of the market have all ran the optimum number of times. Furthermore, none of the runners in this field have won more than twice over a fence. This further alludes to the idea that the winner could be an improving type that the handicapper has failed to notice.
Hold The Note
Imperial Aura looks to be a solid enough favourite. He posted a very good effort behind Simply The Betts who as a pair, pulled well clear of the rest of the field. He went off well fancied and has just snuck into this off 143. He could very well be the improving type and now has Cheltenham form in the book. He ticks most of the boxes and I couldn’t put anyone off backing him in this, however his price is only getting shorter in what is an extremely competitive handicap.
Champagne Court is a very interesting runner for Jeremy Scott. In the last three years, he has only had two other runners at the festival, one of those being Champagne Court. This race favours trainers who have not had any previous festival winners. He was fourth in the Martin Pipe last year and is certainly an interesting angle at a big price. He also contested the same handicap as Imperial Aura and although beaten, was not disgraced when giving him 9lbs. On Tuesday, they will be racing off levels, which could see them a lot closer.
Mick Channon won this race with Mister Whitaker in 2018. Hold The Note has been given a similar prep, fitting most of the main trends. He ran much better on his last start over further and the drop back in trip on a more testing course could suit him. He certainty looked laid out for this race and is carrying the same colours as Mister Whitaker. He has to be considered as a big threat to Imperial Aura.
Jarveys Plate has had a very quiet season since his impressive victory over Reserve Tank back in October. He has contested a bumper as well as running in the Timeform handicap where he didn’t look his best. Should he regain some of his old form he could definitely be a player and the stats are in his favour. However it would take a special training performance to see him win here.
5:30 Cheltenham – The National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Steeple Chase (Grade 2)
This year’s renewal of the National Hunt Challenge Cup has been hit with a few injuries causing the race to cut up quite considerably. Carefully Selected has been top of the market for quite some time after his victory at Naas. His jumping wasn’t perfect but he beat Forza Milan by 4 lengths. He has not been chasing long and experience often pays dividends, with it being such an attritional test. Carefully Selected has only run three times over fences and is completely untried over the trip. Of the last nine winners, all have had four or more runs over fences, which would be a concern for Carefully Selected.
When trying to assess the National Hunt it is important to note the jockey and trainer. Of the last five renewals Mullins, Elliott or O’Neill have won four, so paying attention to Carefully Selected and Ravenhill could be profitable here. Furthermore, jockey records speak for themselves and having a top-class amateur on board is essential. Jamie Codd, Barry O’Neill and Derek O’Connor are the three to watch as all have a lot of experience riding in top class amateur races. Fergal O’Brien has booked Lisa O’Neill to ride Ocean Cove which is quite eye catching. She won this on Tiger Roll in 2018 so clearly knows how to win and is a top amateur. Ravenhill gets the master himself, Jamie Codd, on board who has ridden countless winners for Gordon Elliott at Cheltenham in these amateur races. He gets the Elliott bonus but has not contested a Graded contest as well as only having a rating of 142.
Contesting top Graded races is key for the majority of years, as only one of the last nwinners have not contested a Graded contest. Lord Du Mesnil has been highly effective at this level and is also one of the three to have contested 10 or more races over fences. If you look further, it is interesting to note that the horses that have contested graded races and have a rating of 146+ also have a very good record. Only Carefully Selected and Lord Du Mesnil tick both these boxes. With it being such an open renewal a lot of these struggle to meet many of the trends, therefore it could pay to stick close to the top of the market.
Lord Du Mesnil
It is hard to look past Carefully Selected in this renewal. In terms of trends he fits most and has the added bonus of Patrick Mullins on board. He is the second highest rated in the race and Willie Mullins would not have sent him here over the RSA if he felt he didn’t have a leading chance. What he lacks in his experience he has in potential and should put on a very bold show here.
Ravenhill is very similar as he also lacks the experience that a lot of previous winners have exhibited. However, this isn’t a very high class of renewal, so we could very well see some trends broken. Codd is more than capable of giving him a fantastic ride and although he has some question marks, this race is often won by the same three or four trainers and he very much falls into this category.
Lord Du Mesnil is very much the opposite to these two horses. He feels like he has been around for a long time but is actually only seven which could prove to be an advantage for him. Half of the last six renewals have been won by seven-year-olds and he may very well have been overlooked in the market. Sam Waley-Cohen takes the ride, who is one of the much more experiences jockeys in the race. Lord Du Mesnil certainly has the experience and class to run very well here and it will take a top effort to stop him.
Forza Milan was only beaten 4 lengths by Carefully Selected. Derek O’Connor has chosen to ride him, which speaks volumes. He could very well go close to Carefully Selected again and he does fit most of the trends. There is no reason why the step up in trip won’t bring about more improvement however he is rated a lot lower and trained by a smaller trainer who tend to struggle in this race.